Philippine Elections: The Sound and the Fury

05/20/2013 04:20 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2013
  • Richard Javad Heydarian Academic, policy adviser, and author of "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific"
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Thanks to Hollywood, and Leonardo DiCaprio's blazing performance, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby has captured the popular imagination, especially in an era of growing economic equality, brazen display of extravagance by the 'top 1 percent', and deepening social fissures between the profligate nouveau riche and the struggling '99 percent.'

Given the Philippines' rising (but inequitable) economic fortunes, Gatsby, with its wild parties and lucid portrayal of sheer decadence, brilliantly sheds light on the dark underbellies of glamour, fame, and ambition. But for millions of dismayed middle-class Filipinos, who have lamented the conduct and outcome of the recent by-elections, which only reinforced the grip of political dynasties on the country, there is also another 20th-century American literary genius that comes to mind.

In his works, William Faulkner vividly exposed not only the social ills of America's 'Deep South', but also subtly described with utmost artistry, especially in The Sound and the Fury, the ways by which the elite could be sometimes passionate and mightily self-righteous, but ultimately bereft of love and compassion. He showed, in Weberian parlance, how the privileged classes could skillfully dress instrumental rationality in the garment of tradition and morality. And in a cruel exercise of Orwellian 'double-think', how both the elite, and their numerous subjects, as Faulkner describes, could come to cynically believe in the perpetuation of the status quo.

For many frustrated Filipinos, Faulkner's characters perfectly match what they -- have and continue to -- see as a group of vicious, greedy politicians using the language of public service and invoking familial pedigree to woo a largely underprivileged electorate.

Three solid years into President Aquino's hopeful administration, anchored by 'good governance' initiatives, the chattering classes, filled by millions of netizens bemoaning the defeat of their favored candidates, have arrived at a painful realization that not only political dynasties are here to stay, but the latter is also well-positioned to tighten its stranglehold on a booming economy amid an era of relative political system and emerging irrational exuberance.

What Was at Stake?

The recently-concluded elections were a crucial test of the country's continued march towards democratic re-consolidation, especially after a decade of autocratic reversal under the previous administration. For president Aquino, who relished the dominance of his senatorial bets, and a continued ascendancy in the congressional race, it was an important milestone in securing a strong mandate to enact his policies in the remaining half of his term.

The incumbent parties' senatorial bets won nine out of 12 seats, but the opposition was able to also score upsets in the provincial race. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, despite being under hospital arrest and unable to campaign, won her reelection to the congress, while opposition candidates in key provinces, from Pangasinan, to Pampanga, and Cavite in the industrialized northern island of Luzon, defeated the ruling party's bets.

Nonetheless, the administration seems to have gained enough mandate to push through with national-level measures directed at sustaining economic growth, deepening good governance initiatives, and setting the stage for a favored candidate, probably Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas, to contest the 2016 presidential elections.

Oligarchy with Electoral Characteristics

But for many observers, the bigger drama in the recent elections was the dominance of political dynasties, which have controlled the fate of the country since the founding of the Philippine state. It is precisely for this reason that many have come to see the Philippines as a minimalist-procedural democracy at its best, whereby the notion of democracy more aptly describes the method by which prominent families recycle, contest, and pass down political offices from one generation to the other.

There are roughly 178 dynasties, ruling 73 out of a total of 80 provinces. Thus, for some the country is more of a collection of fiefdoms rather than a modern liberal democracy, which presupposes a healthy level of social mobility that engenders a dynamic and diffused contestation of power.

If anything, recent elections, experts claim, is projected to deepen the influence of political dynasties. While up to 70 percent of Congress hails from prominent political families, the senate's figure is projected to reach 80 percent.

Elections in the country, in many ways, are a family affair, but also about historical amnesia and forgiveness. Former president Joseph Estrada, formerly convicted on plunder charges, has won the star-studded elections in Manila, unseating Alfredo Lim, who is curiously on Foreign Policy Magazine's list of top 500 most powerful people, the so-called '0.000007 percent'. His sons, Jingoy (projected winner) and JV (incumbent), are set to join forces in the Senate.

Ferdinand Marcos, the former autocrat, is gone, but his wife, Imelda, and children, Imee and Bongbong, are very much alive in the political landscape, each enjoying a seat on the congressional, provincial, and senatorial levels, respectively. The 2013 elections saw a comfortable win for Imelda, while a relative, Angelo Barba, ran uncontested for provincial vice-governor in Ilocos Norte to serve as the deputy of Imee. Bongbong is widely expected to run for presidency in 2016.

The Class Disconnect?

Shortly before the elections, the government announced that poll-related incidents stood at 72, claiming the lives of 46 individuals. Allegations of massive vote buying and other forms of irregularities have tainted the elections, but the government has downplayed such concerns, arguing that the automated elections have delivered a much more reliable and swift basis to conduct the elections. And estimated 200 out of 77,000 Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines encountered technical glitches on the elections day.

A significant portion of the middle classes was also concerned by the victory of relatively inexperienced senatorial candidates hailing from prominent families, featuring the likes of Grace Poe-Llamanzares, daughter of the late Filipino actor and presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr., Maria Lourdes "Nancy" Sombillo Binay-Angeles, daughter of the charismatic Vice President Jejomar Binay, and Paolo Benigno "Bam" Aguirre Aquino IV, cousin of President Benigno Aquino III.

Grace Poe, to the surprise of many analysts, garnered the highest votes among the electorate, outflanking seasoned candidates such as Loren Legarda, Alan Peter Cayetano, and Francis Joseph Escudero. While Filipino scholars such as Nicole Curato have aptly identified the factors behind Poe's astonishing performance, namely her disciplined campaign and stellar performance during policy debates, it must also be pointed out that the senatorial candidate might have also considerably benefited from the vicious competition among leading candidates: Shortly before the elections, President Aquino had to mediate among the three top contenders within his coalition, namely Legarda, Escudero and Cayateno, who were locked in a tight contest for the top senatorial position in a bid to establish strong momentum ahead of the 2016 presidential elections. Nonetheless, it seems that many in the middle classes have eventually come to welcome Poe as a strong consensus candidate, who could combine progressive policies with clean governance.

Despite his relative inexperience in politics, criticisms against Bam Aquino were relatively subdued, perhaps because he, graduating from one of the country's leading universities, has been an award-winning youth leader and social entrepreneur -- booking him a seat in the latest World Economic Forum in Davos.

With Nancy Binay, however, the chorus of criticisms has reached new highs. She has, similar to Poe and Aquino, banked on her pedigree to win popular votes, consistently reiterating how her family name represents a brand of public service and dedication -- factors that supposedly more than compensate for her lack of experience in political office. But many in the middle classes were hugely disappointed with her continued refusal to engage in policy debates, fearing this could set a dangerous precedent in upcoming elections. In the end, she emerged among the top candidates, tapping into her father's popularity among the masses -- the largest and decisive source of vote in Philippine democracy.

Ironically, the more Nancy came under attack for avoiding debates, the higher her ratings among the electorate -- probably because she came off as a victim in the eyes of ordinary Filipinos, who have felt slighted by the onslaught of criticisms, mainly by English-speaking classes, who have demanded seemingly high-minded discourse and policy-oriented exchanges. And this is precisely where Philippine elections become a fundamentally contentious issue.

As a colleague of mine recently told me, "When does the masses' choice become so bad that it is incumbent upon the [middle classes] to say something? Is there a line we can draw? Can we ever decry the choices of the masses?"

In the end, once could argue that a truly democratic election is when the majority or the masses' voting patterns reflect an exercise of personal freedom and the General Will of the society. The plight of the poor in the country is real, and their ability to make an optimal choice is constrained by the staggering levels of inequality in the society. More than seeing democracy as a procedure for electing leaders, what the country needs most is an equitable economic system that ensures, as French revolutionary thinker Rousseau puts it, "no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself." But it is neither the prerogative of the middle/upper classes to dictate the outcome of the elections.